Saturday, July 19, 2008

The Saddest Grave in the World

The mass grave at Glasnevin.

Who is the Greatest Poet in the English Language?

I guess many people, when asked this question, would immediately say Shakespeare. But I'd dispute this verdict: Shakespeare was definitely the world's greatest playwright - in any language - he was arguably the greatest writer of all time, again in any language. And yet, specifically as a "poet", I'm not quite sure he's the numero uno. The sonnets are delightful, but the greatest "poems" ever? Hm. Likewise, there are passages in the plays which are the purest and loveliest poetry ever written, but they're not actually poems - so they don't count.


So who is the greatest poet in the English language? Keats? Nope. His writing is very very pretty, he's a major poet for sure, but he lacks the overwhelming emotional impact for the title of "greatest poet ever".

What about Byron or Milton? They're both personal favourites of mine. And, coincidentally, Byron's Don Juan may be the greatest long poem in the language - right alongside Milton's Paradise Lost.

But again, for me, there is something a little too smooth and uninvolved in both these writers, despite their undoubted greatness, for them to get the gold medal.

Anyone else? Wordsworth is too wordy. Coleridge too mad. Spenser too Spenserian. The High Victorians - Browning, Tennyson, etc - are far too earnest for my liking. Though Tennyson did write gorgeous lines: "now sleeps the crimson petal, now the white".

I guess we should consider the moderns. Auden was brilliant, but not that brilliant. Yeats is a strong contender, indeed I'd put him in the top five; yet his overly-determined Irishness is a distraction. As for Plath, she was searing and powerful - but peculiarly minor at the same time. Hughes wrote too much about badgers. Dylan Thomas only wrote three good poems. Larkin I love, but, I confess he's hardly better than Shakespeare; and we've already denied Shakespeare the top spot.

Who's left? John Donne? He is always magnificent - "batter my heart, three person'd God" - however his verse is too halting and craggy, for my taste. As for T.S. Eliot - I'd put the Four Quartets up there with the greatest poems in the canon; yet there is a self-consciousness in Eliot which means that, though he's better than most, he's not quite the best.

Crossing the Atlantic we find a few more contenders. Robert Frost is a splendid poet in his deceptively simple New England way. He also wrote some of the most memorable lines in the tongue - "the best way out is always through". But there is also a lack of invention and intensity. Emily Dickinson is the opposite: sometimes too inventive and intense (though very fine). Whitman is plain weird. Ginsberg can be tedious. Longfellow is crap.

By now you may have guessed where I'm going. Yes, I already have one candidate in mind. For me the greatest poet in the English language is the sad, gay, London-born Jesuit: Gerard Manley Hopkins.

He's my chart topper. Why? Because he wrote poetry that was brilliantly experimental yet blushingly lovely at the same; because he was brave, bold and bitterly neglected - yet he carried on writing. Because he wrote Pied Beauty and Binsey Poplars. Because, most of all, his poems, at their best, have an emotional power which is simply peerless in the English language.

All of which is a very long preamble to the point of this blogpost: on my recent travels to Dublin I went to see where Hopkins was buried, in the city's Glasnevin cemetery. Because Hopkins was - is - such a great and important poet, I imagined there would be a big memorial, maybe even a statue.

He's buried in a mass grave, alongside hundreds of other Jesuits. His personal resting place isn't even marked. There's no gravestone, no memorial, no statue - not even a humble plaque. Nothing. The only indication that Hopkins is interred in this damp grey patch of Irish soil is a little inscription of his name, amongst thousands of others, on a cross above the pit of Jesuit bodies. And the inscription of his name is in Latin so you have to double-check the dates to make sure it's really him.

The sad anonymity is incredibly poignant. It's also arguably fitting: for such a self-effacing man as the shy and isolated priest-poet from Highgate.

And yet I still think Hopkins deserves a better memorial. In fact I think he deserves his own cathedral. But until the moment comes when he is properly honoured, we will just have to remember his through his immortal verse.

And so. Here is one of Hopkins's finest poems, from the "terrible sonnets" sequence, where - fittingly enough - he laments the loneliness of his final years in cold and dirty Dublin:

NO worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief,
More pangs will, schooled at forepangs, wilder wring.
Comforter, where, where is your comforting?
Mary, mother of us, where is your relief?
My cries heave, herds-long; huddle in a main, a chief
Woe, world-sorrow; on an age-old anvil wince and sing --
Then lull, then leave off. Fury had shrieked 'No ling-
ering! Let me be fell: force I must be brief'.

O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
May who ne'er hung there. Nor does long our small
Durance deal with that steep or deep. Here! creep,
Wretch, under a comfort serves in a whirlwind: all
Life death does end and each day dies with sleep.

The inscription of Hopkins's name.

Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin.


Anonymous said...

Well, I have to disagree about Shakespeare being #1. No doubt about that.

About #2, how about going with someone who doesn't take himself so damn serious? I go for Dr. Suess. His Grinch who stole Christmas is one of the greatst poem ever written. Green Eggs and Ham is great too.

Anonymous said...

Agree with much of what you say but, for some reason, perhaps inexcusably, I just cannot take all the sprung rhythm stuff. So no, can't agree Hopkins is the one.(Not even the great Anthony Burgess - another Hopkins enthusiast - can persuade me).

Think anonymous is right. Shakespeare it has to be.

Anonymous said...

Incidentally, the Guardian is running a blog at the moment on who is the greatest - Milton or Shakespeare? Now that is a more even contest!